We are meant to be changed by the risen Christ. We are called to be no less than transformed by the Holy One. But this process of transformation cannot really work if we are still holding on to our past sins or failures, or anyone else’s. We need to repent, have our minds changed, turned around, renewed by our relationship with the Risen One and by seeking to live a Resurrection life. The readings this week help us to understand the process. (Luke 24:36b-48; Acts 3:12-20; 1 John 2:15-17. 3:1-6)
According to Luke this weeks reading is among the last words the resurrected yet still visible Jesus speaks to his disciples, so presumably they are very important. And what is the message? That repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all people, starting in Jerusalem. To us who are familiar with these words they can become a bit hackneyed. Indeed quite frankly they are rather disappointing. So let us pull the curtain back, remove the dust of church history and tradition and try and hear the radical claim of Jesus ‘parting words.
First we need to dust off some of the language itself before we can hear what is being meant.
“Repentance”, as we know is to change one’s mind. It has both the sense that we change our mind about something, in this case the meaning of the person Jesus and his life, death and resurrection. And it also has the meaning to have one’s mind changed by an experience, an encounter with the son of the living God.
“Forgiveness of sins” certainly needs dusting off. Sin as we know is simply a falling short - which is everything from morally evil intentional behaviour to inadequacy. Forgiveness is to be set free not only from the consequences of our flawed nature and all our failures but to be set free from their hold over us.
So when we pair these two things together we have a potent call to nothing less than transformation. That is, to have our mind changed by an encounter with the living God and so to be set free from all that is impoverished and fallen short in our nature and life. As Paul said in Romans be transformed by the renewing of your mind.1 John says it this way: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”
This is not a moralistic legalistic process of begrudgingly being let off the hook but a process of profound being recreated, reformed, transformed by loving engagement with the loving creator of all and his incarnation as one of us – Jesus the Christ. We are transformed, grown into our truest selves, changed into the likeness of Christ, by seeing him as he is.
Now let’s bring this down out of the church rafters and seek to understand what transformation might look like in our lives. Firstly it is about our seeing Jesus as he is. We know that when we fall in love with a new born child or an aged neighbour of our partner we experience seeing them both as others see them but somehow more deeply. We cannot take our eyes off them. We are delighted by what we see. We look upon Jesus through the stories we hear, the word we absorb, the behaviour of his disciples, the experience of receiving the sacraments, the movement of his spirit blowing through and around us. So what we hear, what we read and study, who we worship with – all matter.
And as we also know from engaging with the newest child in our family, the oldest relative, the one we hope will be our life long love, we feel seen. And it is wonderful and dreadful to be so fully seen. As 1 John puts it when Jesus is revealed we will be like him, for we shall see him as he is. It is the process of seeing and being seen that transforms us into beings like Christ. That is we are being grown into who we truly are by loving relationship.
This process of transformation cannot really work if we are still holding on to our past sins or failures, or anyone else’s. And while we think of things in conventional human ways we are still locked into a deathly embrace with fear of punishment and/or the desire for retribution. The human system is: sin/failure/crime – punishment – repentance (mainly in order to avoid said punishment) – transformation. Whereas God’s way of responding to the prodigal sons and daughters of this world is: sin/failure/crime – unconditional love and forgiveness (letting go and releasing) – transformation – repentance.
Transformation – being forgiven and forgiving others and having our minds changed by an encounter with Jesus the Christ – involves being changed. And although this change may be in the direction of who we truly are and are meant to be it is still not easy and most of us put up a heroic resistance. For change often feels dangerous or potentially exhausting or otherwise scary and demanding. At the moment I am very aware that even desired change can feel like way too much effort.
Change and transformation are related but not the same thing. Change tends to just happen – sometimes good sometimes not so good. Change tends to be about new beginnings, new events. But transformation often tends to involve not so much the new as the old falling apart. The pain of things falling apart invites the soul to listen at a deeper level, it invites or even forces the soul to a new place because the old is disappearing under our feet. Thus transformation often includes a disconcerting reorientation.
Change can help people find new meaning or it can cause people to close down and turn bitter. The difference is in large part determined by the quality of our inner life – our spirituality. For change of itself just happens; but spiritual transformation must become an actual process that we consent to participating in of letting go; living through the confusion for a time; and allowing ourselves, like Jonah, to be spat up on a new and unexpected shore. Or like the disciples of the newly resurrected one we find ourselves on a familiar shore eating broiled fish with one so changed we can scare recognize him.
Transformation requires handing ourselves over to the living God and not simply going on a self controlled personal development course or an outward bound camp – although that may be helpful. So transformation is never something we can achieve on our own and then offer our transformed selves to God as a thank you. Rather it is grace – love not earnt but freely given – that gives us the courage and desire to change and grow and to keep on going when the process gets confusing. It is only handing ourselves over – surrendering – to the living God and the mystery of life that will transform us.
Now our full participation, including good spiritual practice such as prayer, study of Scripture, spiritual direction, worship is essential. It is not either chaotic God driven change or self disciplined practice but rather both us giving ourselves fully into the hands of God and becoming conscious to what is happening and deeply cooperating in our life. As Maria Boulding (in "Marked for Life: Prayer in the Easter Christ") says “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. It is even more terrible to fall out of the hands of the living God.” So let us take courage and again and again give ourselves into the still scarred hands of the son of the living God and give ourselves to being transformed. We need it, the world needs it.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come change our hearts and minds with your presence.